Friday April 20th, 2018 4:18PM

Opinion: Top motorsports stories of 2016 had a little of everything

By Brandon Reed Reporter
  Contact Editor

The past year has been an eventful one in the world of motorsports, to say the least.

Stories from NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA Drag Racing and various short track series and short track events took center stage throughout the year, with on and off track drama making headlines.

That makes it a tough task to whittle all of the events from the past 364 days down to just a few. But there were some stories that stood out to us as we looked over the pages from the last 52 weeks.

With that in mind, here, in no particular order, are the motorsports stories that we earmarked as our “top ten” for the 2016 racing season. While we know that not everyone will agree with our choices, we feel this gives a good taste of what the 2016 season was all about.

And before you fire off an angry email to us, we already know that there are several other stories that maybe should have made the list. Unfortunately, with as much action as we saw in 2016, it would take us another 365 days to recap all of the great stories that we saw this year.

As we don’t have that much time, we hope you’ll understand that we had to settle for the stories below.

1. Jimmie Johnson Earns Seventh Sprint Cup Title

When Jimmie Johnson made his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, many may not have believed he would be a true contender. The No. 48 team had been far from dominant over the 2016 season, and some considered him a long shot for the championship.

But each time the team seemed to be out of contention, they made the most of the opportunities afforded them by their competitors. At Charlotte, when the teams that had dominated the early laps were caught up in a multi-car crash, Johnson made the most and surged to the victory.

At Martinsville, just laps after rolling to a stop with what appeared to be an empty gas tank, Johnson made the most of a late restart to surge to the lead and score the victory.

At the season finale, Johnson’s and his Hendrick Motorsports team seemed to be out to lunch for most of the day, running at the back of the championship pack. While his team worked to dial his Chevy in, Carl Edwards appeared on his way to a title.

But when Edwards crashed after a tangle with Joey Logano with ten laps to go, Johnson avoided the carnage. On the restart, he drove past leader Kyle Larson, taking the lead and the win. In doing so, he tied NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. by scoring his seventh career series title.

2. Rossi Wins 100th Indianapolis 500

For so many reasons, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 was special. First was the fact that it was the 100th running of the historic event.

Then was the massive crowd that turned out for the event, the largest since the 1996 split of the IndyCar and CART series. The sellout crowd in the stands harkened back to the days when the event was billed as the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

But nobody could foresee the ending of the race, and a winner that brought the fans to their feet.

Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Alexander Rossi stretched his fuel over the final 36 laps of the 200 lap race. The 24-year-old California native ran out of fuel coming through the fourth turn on the final lap, coasting across the finish line to score his first career win in just his sixth career start.

In a race that saw 54 lead changes among 13 drivers (the second most in 500 history), Rossi paced the field for just 14 laps.

The victory made Rossi the 10th rookie to score an Indy 500 win in history, and the first since 2001 when Helio Castroneves scored the win.

3. Rosberg Takes F1 Title, Announces Retirement

Nico Rosberg battled his Mercedes teammate, Lewis Hamilton, all season for the Formula One championship.

That fight came down to the season finale in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. With Hamilton leading, Rosberg ran second, in position to take the title. Hamilton went on to take the win, with Rosberg’s runner-up spot giving him his first championship.

Five days later, Rosberg announced to the world that he was hanging up his helmet at the age of 31. Rosberg said he made the decision the day after the Abu Dhabi race, saying via Facebook that the title fight had taken its toll on his family.

Rosberg is the first reigning F1 champion to retire since 1993, when Alain Prost made the same decision.

Rosberg scored 23 victories in 206 career starts, along with 30 pole positions.

4. The Death Of Bryan Clauson

On August 6, three-time USAC champion Bryan Clauson was competing in the 39th annual Belleville Midget Nationals at Kansas’ Belleville High Banks.

Clauson was leading on lap 14 when his car made contact with the guardrail in turn three, flipping end over end before being struck by the car of Ryan Greth.

It took 30 minutes for rescue workers to extricate him from his car before he was airlifted to a Lincoln, Nebraska hospital.

Clauson passed away the next day. He was 27 years old.

Clauson was one of the most popular and well respected drivers in short track racing. He had previously competed in both NASCAR and IndyCar, including this year’s Indianapolis 500.

At the time he lost his life, he was running in his 116th race of the season, part of an ambitious 200 race schedule. He had scored 27 wins on the season, and entered the weekend as the defending winner of the Bellville Nationals.

5. It Takes Two Extra Days, But Eckes Scores Snowball Win

The 49th annual running of the Snowball Derby, considered by many to be the biggest asphalt Super Late Model race of the season, was scheduled to roll off on Sunday, December 4. But after two straight days of rain, the race finally rolled off on Tuesday, December 6.

While many of the pre-race favorites suffered setbacks, the race came down to a fight between two teenagers, as Christian Eckes and John Hunter Nemechek swapped the lead back and fourth some four times over the course of the final two laps.

Nemechek, the 2014 Snowball Derby winner, had taken the lead with less than 15 laps to go, but Eckes was able to close the gap on the leader as the laps wound down. With three to go, the Middletown, New York native got a run on the inside of Nemechek, and the fight for the win was on.

Coming to the checkered flag, it was 16-year-old Eckes beating out Nemechek by a matter of inches at the finish line to score the biggest win of his career.

6. Concussion Sidelines Earnhardt, Jr.

It was an announcement that took the NASCAR world by surprise.

Days after a 13th place finish at Kentucky in July, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced he was stepping out of his No. 88 Chevrolet after experiencing concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt said he had not feel great going into the Kentucky race, and after being evaluated by physicians, he was not cleared to race in the next event at New Hampshire.

Alex Bowman came in to fill Earnhardt, Jr.’s seat for that race. After that, Jeff Gordon came back from retirement for several races in the No. 88.

Week after week, the question became “When will Earnhardt, Jr. return?”

In September, Hendrick Motorsports announced the he would be out for the rest of the season. Over the following weeks, Earnhardt, Jr. updated fans and the media while making it clear that, while getting better was the top priority, retirement was not something he was considering.

Finally, in December, Earnhardt, Jr.’s hard road to recovery led him back to the cockpit of his racecar for a test at Darlington Raceway. Physicians and NASCAR officials announced the next day that he was cleared to return for February’s Daytona 500.

But his time out of the car set an example that drivers can and should take the time to heal after an injury.

7. Kalitta Makes Top Fuel History At Commerce

Doug Kalitta scored the Top Fuel victory at Commerce, Georgia’s Atlanta Dragway back in May, and wrote a page of NHRA Drag Racing history in the process.

In the division final, Kalitta lined up against his Kalitta Motorsports teammate, J.R. Todd at the starting line. Kalitta beat out Todd on a holeshot, powering his dragster to a 3.801 second pass at 323.29 mph. Todd turned in a pass at 3.780 seconds at 320.66 mph.

But it was the difference at the finish line that re-wrote the record books, as the margin of victory between the two was .0000, the closest Top Fuel race in series history.

Along with the historic finish, it gave Kalitta his second straight win of the season, the third of his career at Atlanta Dragway and his 40th overall.

8. Chase Elliott Impresses In Rookie Season

Anybody who watched Chase Elliott compete on the short tracks around the southeast already knew what to expect when he began his rookie season on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tour.

For the rest of the world, it only took qualifying in February at Daytona to see that he would be a driver to be dealt with.

After scoring the pole for the 2016 Daytona 500, Elliott turned heads by scoring a last-lap pass for the win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series opener at Daytona.

From there, Elliott scored 10 top-5 finishes, along with 17 top-10 results. He scored a second pole in May at Talladega. In 36 starts, he led 358 laps, completing 97.3 percent of all the laps completed during the season.

His best finish of the year was a second place, which he recorded twice, both coming at Michigan International Speedway.

While the Dawsonville, Georgia native may not have scored a win in his first full season on the tour, the 20-year-old’s performance on the season netted him the 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

9. Pollard Finally Scores “Major” Win With All-American Victory

Coming into October’s All-American 400 at Tennessee’s Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, Bubba Pollard had won numerous Late Model stock car races on both asphalt and dirt. He had scored victories, won championships and competed against – and defeated – some of the top stock car drivers in the country.

But the one thing he had not done was score a win in one of asphalt Late Model racing’s “Majors” – namely one of a handful of long races that see the best drivers in the country compete.

On October 2, the Senoia, Georgia speedster marked that off his punch list.

After running a conservative race for much of the event’s 400 laps, Pollard took the lead with just under 25 laps to go, and drove away to take the win. That gave him the $16,000 winner’s share of the purse and a coveted All American 400 Guitar to his trophy case.

But more importantly, Pollard finally answered the often asked question, “When are you going to win one of the Majors?”

10. Goodbye Sprint, Hello Monster

Coming into the 2016 season, it was known that the season would be the final one for Sprint as the title sponsor for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

What was not known was who would replace the telecommunications company in the sponsorship role for NASCAR’s premier series.

Despite several updates over the 36 race season, no firm announcement came until just prior to the series championship after the season ended.

On December 1, NASCAR announced a multi-year deal that will make Monster Energy, making the energy drink just the third entitlement sponsor in history.

In addition, Monster will also sponsor the NASCAR All-Star Race, along with becoming the official Energy Drink of NASCAR.

Two and a half weeks later, NASCAR announced that the official name of the series will be the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series beginning in 2017.

Monster Energy replaces Sprint, which sponsored the series from 2004 through 2016. Before then, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company sponsored the tour, known as the Winston Cup Series, from 1971 to 2003.

  • Associated Categories: Sports, NASCAR News, Monster Cup
  • Associated Tags: nascar, motorsports, IndyCar, Auto Racing, NHRA, Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Dirt Track, Stock Car, Short Track, Asphalt, Sprint Cup Series, Verizon IndyCar Series, Late Model, Indianapolis 500, Motorsports Live On WDUN, Snowball Derby, Midgets, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
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